Ace cover, June 8, 2000
You mostly eat crap. What do Lexington’s finest chefs eat?
Here’s the stunning exclusive.
Since summer is all about sequels, it’s time – once again – to find out what the pros are eating in a continuation of the probing 1998 ACE series, The Fridges of Fayette County.
Some of the top chefs of Lexington agreed to be grilled (so to speak) about food, society, and whether Applebee’s is destroying humanity.
Then we rifled their fridges, just so you can see how the other half lives. The results are electrifying. Amazing. Shocking.
It’s a world of condiments, booze, butter and maybe just a little electric boogaloo.
Maybe a severed head is in here somewhere… maybe not.
Ouita Michel’s kitchen is very much a home, full of knick-knacks and well-used pots and pans. The open windows shower the room with light and comfort. It’s like a Southern Living pictorial without the antiseptic repression. Happy cooking goes on here. You can tell.
Michel sits in the kitchen, smiling happily despite the stranger sitting in front of her, not knowing he’ll be rooting through her fridge soon.
Michel grew up cooking with her mom and grandmother, and decided to give professional cooking a shot after college. She lived in Manhattan to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and after that came right back to Lexington and took a job at Dudley’s. After she and her husband worked on a video-CD to teach cooking, she was offered the job as head chef of Emmett’s.
As one could expect, Michel cares deeply about food and cooking. “My food philosophy is…well, I went into the food industry because I think it engages every aspect of the human experience. Art, politics, famine, war, pestilence, everything that we go through as a society globally, locally, agriculture-it’s all related to the sustenance, the maintenance, the preparation and handling of our food supply.”
“One thing I constantly try to do at Emmett’s is to cook with a historical perspective. I don’t think there’s anything new you can do with food, and I’m not looking for it. I can’t stand bullshit restaurant food. It’s all supposed to sound quirky and fun, but it’s not based in anything. I once had a Cornish game hen, where the chef had put it upside down into a pile of mashed potatoes with a sprig of Rosemary sticking out of its butt. That doesn’t make any sense!”
And who could disagree with that?
Despite her sunny demeanor, she is disturbed when questioned on the Applebee’s Conundrum. “Their food is not what drives me insane. Their architecture ruins the landscape; their stores dominate the market. They have money for ads that brainwash the community. Their food comes from outside, and the money goes out, while many small restaurants have to declare bankruptcy.”
She continues, “Their food is not cooked, it’s shipped; they’ve changed the American palate so that any food that is not processed the public thinks is tough. Just because it’s got some consistency. These restaurants ruin people’s impression of what’s truly fresh and subtle.”
Well, maybe it is the food.
The fact that she’s lost in thought presents an opening for a quick fridge raid, which yields a chilled land of condiments. A1 sauce. Worcestershire sauce. Clam sauce. Clam sauce?
“You never know when you’re going to need to make a little clam pasta,” Michel points out. Right at this moment there are people unprepared, yet in desperate need of making clam pasta.
More condiments. Hot lime sauce. Spicy brown mustard. The largest jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise that anyone’s ever seen. Three bottles of ketchupall opened. Ouita simply turns her head away – time to stop probing.
On the shelves are a few more food items: Pickled jalapenos, pickled cauliflower, a huge head of lettuce that sits defiantly on top of the crisper. Some eggs and Velveeta. Lite beer. Blue cheese. But no real food.
So…where’s the food?
“Here’s some strawberries,” she laughs, offering a little green basket of what may once have been somebody’s fingers.
She takes the ‘fruit’ away, saying, “That’s the problem with being a restaurant chef. I go to the grocery store and get everything for that meal.” But the lesson learned here is that chefs have condiments.
But no severed head at Michel’s. The search continued.
Jonathan Lundy’s dogs are happy to greet a guest, and his daughter Amelia appears with the demand to blow bubbles, but Jonathan leads the way to the kitchen…which occupies the entirety of his ground floor. The room feels like one big kitchen with a couch.
There’s a huge rack of wines, next to a pillar covered entirely in wine corks. His wife Cara smiles in greeting, grabbing their daughter as she terrorizes one of the dogs.
Despite the turmoil, the kitchen radiates organization. The pots and skillets are clean and suspended from a rack; the cabinets are new and the fridge immaculate. But there’s a feel of spontaneity to it; you could really just grab something out of the fridge to snack on (this is a departure from the other chef’s abodes).
Lundy himself is wiry and relaxed…but wary.
After some combat with higher education, he chose to give culinary school a try, ending up afterwards at Roy and Nadine’s for half a decade. A few years ago he broke out on his own with the ironically named Jonathan’s.
This kitchen screams “young couple.” There will undoubtedly be 20 juice boxes, and no severed heads. Then Lundy shifts and the tattoo on his arm becomes visibly a skull, with a knife and fork crossed menacingly underneath. What if flambéed reporter is the main course?
As may be surmised, cooking, for Lundy, is all about the action!
“It’s just the idea of having a good time with it. When there’s a bit of pressure and you’re getting a lot of [orders] in, and you’re riding it. That’s my favorite part.”
“Impulsiveness is a big thing. I definitely work by that. Planning sort of throws me off. I might start with one idea, and one thing will lead to another. If you order the same thing she got, then it’ll still be a little different. Each plate is its own thing.”
As for Applebee’s?
“I don’t go there. I went there once and had a riblet and I never went back. I don’t think I even ordered it, it just sort of… appeared. I don’t like it.”
Succinct, and to the point.
What innovations and play does he bring to cooking at home?
“I don’t cook too much at home,” he confesses. “We order a lot of pizza. Sometimes I cook. But the other day I learned how to make suckers for my daughter.”
“I want a sucker!” says Amelia, immediately transfixed by the prospect.
“You ate them all,” he admonishes.
“No I didn’t!” she protests.
“Yeah, you did.”
“NOO!!” She agonizes, unable to bear this cold, hard truth.
Time to check the fridge: A case containing at least one jillion eggs. Mott’s apple juice. Burgundy wine, for their five-year anniversary. Crystal hot sauce, European butter (“higher fat”), preserved peaches. Key limes “for a Mexican-food party we had last week. We filled the water cooler with Margaritas.”
Jonathan Lundy – our new hero.
Milk, OJ, three more bottles of wine. In the door is some Molson beer, ketchup, goat cheese and butter. And some ALE-8, in the longneck bottles.
“Only way to drink it.” Lundy then mutters, “Uhh.. you, uh, want one?” (clearly having no desire to give one up). Experience dictates: Never separate an Ale-8 drinker from their longnecks.
In the freezer is Starbucks coffee, a box labeled Vanilla Fudge Twirl, frozen pizzas for Amelia, Cheesy Rice with Broccoli for Amelia, and Frootee-Ice for Amelia. Waffles and frozen peas round off the happy bliss of the Lundy freezer.
As the interview winds down, he offers a grilled fig rubbed with cinammon, olive oil, date sugar, and then grilled.
Now it’s hard to leave.
Amelia waves goodbye.
Never got to see the bubbles.
With his assortment of tattoos, James Latta seems more likely to belt out a Sex Pistols cover than pickle a plum. His apartment kitchen looks like a regular guy’s apartment kitchen. Except it’s clean. Otherwise: no hint of the culinary genius who resides here.
When he cooks for himself, it’s an omelet. “I have an omelet a day. I have gorgonzola cheese, yellow peppers and tomatoes. With a little Picante sauce. And a beer.”
Which is an extreme example of guy cooking-one dish, often repeated. It’s just that Latta has more steps than ‘put in bowl.’
“Food is the lifeblood. You sleep, you breathe, you eat. You can get a nice comfortable bed…breathing you can’t do much about. If I can make that part of sustaining life that much more enjoyable, then that’s where they separate the cooks from the chefs. We have to eat. God, let’s make it fun.”
So is Latta the hip, young chef of Lexington?
Sure, why not?
Look at his vita.
He started out at G.D. Ritzy’s, the long gone and oft-mourned fast-food chain, then moved to the Bristol Bar and Grill.
Giving a big hip ‘Why Not?’ to the food industry, he went to culinary school, got an apprenticeship under a very talented man who was “quite the ass,” and came back to Lexington and hooked up with the middle-eastern wunder-restaurant Helios. Latta is now responsible for the entire menu.
It’s the creativity of cooking that appeals to Latta “I love to eat, first and foremost. I’m a lover of food.”
“Cooking is an ego thing too,” he adds. “It’s a really good way to meet girls. It’s very self-motivated. I mean I like to make people happy but I like it much more when they tell me what a good job I’ve done.”
Which, of course, means Applebee’s cannot be tolerated by James Latta. “I’m upset by it. It totally shoots the artistic aspect of food out the window. There’s no room for creativity, except for the guy in the corporate office who figures out the recipes and faxes them along. ”
Willing to provide an education on date food, Latta shares: “Pasta. Not a simple pasta. But it’s light. A good first date food. A fourth or fifth date, I’d probably do some stone crab claws.”
On his favorite food: “I love Indy’s Hot and Spicy Chicken wings, which a lot of chefs would frown upon but my God they are good. I can’t help it, I get this craving for ‘em. They are so hot. I mean, you sweat, and your nose runs, and it’s [a] not fun experience, but they taste so damn good.” Inflicting pain on yourself is hip.
Latta is probably too hip to have a severed head in his freezer. In fact, on examination, it’s an arctic wasteland. Four trays of ice. There is no evidence of anything other than ice ever inhabiting his freezer. Disturbing, sure. But in a hip kind of way.
So to the fridge, which is best described as beverage-oriented. There’s some tea, some milk, tonic water and Belvedere vodka. On the top shelf sits the beer triumvirate of a Coors Light, a Bud Light, and a Taj Mahal. Hazelnut-flavored coffee creamer sits on the shelf.
But his few foodstuffs indicate his culinary experience. The above mentioned omelet articles are grouped together for ease of acquisition. There’s some Japanese rice, peppers, wheat and rye bread. An apple that’s seen better days. Actual margarine for cooking, (the only chef interviewed to admit to this). A jar of goat-cheese soaked in olive oil -”This is the perk of working at Helios: Middle-Eastern cheese.” There is evidence of Latta’s recent pickling kick. There’s a jar of preserved lemons (“I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. But they’re there.”) and pickled morels (mushrooms). Some capers. And a tiny jar of seaweed flakes. “I make ginger rice sometimes. I use the seaweed to give it that lovely, fishy taste.”
And there’s nothing hipper than a fishy taste.
Someone has tipped Tony Cortez off: the kitchen, in fact the entire house, is supernaturally clean.
He and his wife Ellen insist that they moved in only a few months ago. (Five months after our move the air conditioner was clogged with mashed potatoes.) But giving him the benefit of the doubt, the back porch is selected as an interview site.
You can tell right away that Cortez cares about food. He cares about the heart of food, a trait acquired from his godmother. His informal cooking experience came from a seminary in Texas, where he was studying to be a priest. Luckily for the digestive systems of many Lexingtonians, the Lord called him to the kitchen, where, after working just about everywhere in the U.S. for various Hyatts (and organizing banquets for thousands) he decided to take the culinary high road and start the Homestead with some friends from the Lexington Hyatt.
“You can be a very good chef, but you get a lot more exposure at a restaurant. People know you more,” says Cortez, very serious, on why he moved from hotels to a restaurant.
His focus is simple: “I am very concerned that everyone who comes there has a good experience. We try to make the food as traditional as we can, and just add a couple of little things that add to the experience and not change it.”
He responds without hesitation to why he cooks. “I enjoy when people have a good time. It’s like everyone who comes to the restaurant is coming to my house to eat. I’m happy when people say ‘My God, this is good.’”
“You know, Malcolm (Homestead co-owner) always gets on me because my portions are huge. But I’d rather people go home full than go home hungry and stop by McDonald’s on the way home.”
So does Cortez hate McDonald’s and, perhaps, by extension, is a rant on Applebee’s forthcoming?
“There’s a market for everyone. As long as you don’t go to Applebee’s expecting something else. You go to certain restaurants with certain expectations.”
As for McDonald’s, it is his secret shame as a chef.
“I know this is bad stuff,” he confesses, “but I still eat it!”
Quick and easy are his justification.
“You don’t get hungry at work, cause you’re always around food all day, but then you’re hungry, either right after you get off work or at 2:00 in the morning and you’re down there at the refrigerator eating froot loops.”
But Tony most enjoys good Mexican food, like burritos, enchiladas and chalupas. He always works with herbs and spices, ever since he helped his godmother. It’s these touches that make food so important, he says. “It all comes down to basic knowledge, creativity, and what’s in your heart.”
Their cat, eager to join in the culinary conversion, proffers a dead chipmunk.
This opening is clearly an invitation to raid the refrigerator. Instant gratification: there’s a Pizza Hut pizza in the fridge, half supreme, half pepperoni in the true spirit of marital compromise.
Covering the bottom rack are a multitude of juices for their baby: apple passion mango juice, cranberry cocktail. Some baby food as well. A jar of Hellman’s tartar sauce they insist is not for the baby. Cream cheese, sausages, and organic peanut butter are on the next shelf, with some pasta, parmesan cheese and those little tomatoes. The beverage assortment is full with soy milk, a 96 sauvignon blanc wine, and Kool-Aid, which Ellen tips as an obsession.
“Like that Seinfeld episode, George and his Ovaltine. That’s me and Kool-Aid.”
Like all the others, Cortez says he just picks up food as he decides to cook it. These chefs.
Still hoping for a severed head, the freezer yields instead a decadent Key Lime pie. There’s your standard vanilla ice cream, orange sherbet and a box of fish sticks.
Mmmmm. Fish sticks.
Pressing on, there are two staples of the perfect college diet: Pop-ice and rum.
“I love Pop-Ice. Just sugar and water,” he laughs.
The Cortez house has yielded a new brother-in-arms – a comrade who knows the perfection of the blue Pop-Ice.
One could easily think they’d entered the Fort Knox set of Goldfinger instead of Harriett Dupree’s kitchen. Every appliance was in stainless steel. The fridge. The oven. Her dishwasher was quite clearly smarter than your computer (it beeped when it opened!). Her kitchen is the future that housewives in the 1950s dreamed of.
Harriet Dupree has run Dupree Catering for 14 years. She started by herself, and she and her staff now caters parties of several thousand people. She has cooked since she was five, turning pro for the hired hands at her father’s farm. Why?
“I love food, I love to eat,” she says, a statement belied by her skinniness.
“I have more of a passion for creating food…” she admits after some inappropriate but insightful probing.
“The best part for me is when people are eating. It’s definitely a compulsion to serve.”
Dupree is serious about the meal. “A meal can be a communion…the food, the people, the place, the time… There’s something about sitting down and breaking bread with people that makes us more human. Every dinnertime, my dog – who is always running about and yapping – gets completely relaxed and quiet; he just lies there. He wouldn’t do it if there weren’t some physical, mental and spiritual release going on at the dinner table. Food is a communion. As a cook, it’s an offering to the people I love. Even with [clients], the meal I fix is part of their most emotional moments.”
This stress on the emotional side of cooking and food carries over into Dupree Catering easily. “We all sit down and eat lunch every day, and it’s a big deal I heard my cook once telling a new cook, ‘Lunch is very important. As long as Harriet’s happy with lunch, you’ve got job security.’ I’ve fired people, and they still come back for the lunch.”
With such a food guru, it is important to ask the most incisive questions. Like, “What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever cooked?”
“I once cooked a whole lamb. We had a whole skinned lamb, still had the hooves on.. but no head. You walked into our freezer and there was this headless lamb, without its entrails, no tail, just frozen and standing there.”
At this point it’s obvious that if anyone will have a human head in their fridge, it’s going to be Harriet Dupree.
She gets distracted with the Applebee’s Conundrum. “I hate Applebee’s. My impression is that everything at Applebee’s is pre-made. You’re going to get the same exact meal at every Applebee’s. The kids who work there put it in a steamer for X minutes till the beeper goes off. I can’t stand [it]. I’m sure all the food is manufactured somewhere else.”
“I hate fast food,” she elaborates. “Thirty minutes after I eat fast food, I feel ill…”
The concept of food-on-the-go seems to leave her cold.
“I spilled hollandaise sauce in the back of my car once [on a catering job], and I had to sell that car.”
She does enjoy slow, braised meats, and what she calls Winter foods. And Indian cuisine. On a trip there she claims, “I ate my way through India.” When asked about other embarrassing food anecdotes, she says simply, “I dreamed I was walking into the ocean and I looked down and I was wearing a bikini made out of cheese grits. My therapist said I was working too hard.”
On that note, time to check out the icebox.
Bypassing the freezer momentarily, the regular fridge yields… in a word, olives. Olives. More olives. Martini olives. Anchovy-stuffed olives, “The best olives for martinis,” she says (apparently better than martini olives). Heavy whipping cream and half&half next to a small bag of flour, to keep the bugs away (not that there are any in her house). Pimentos and still more olives. On the top shelf is the standard jar of mayo, sushi vinegar, and waffle batter.
The second shelf is full of deli meats and cheeses, some kind of parmesan. In the crisper are signs of true chefness: onions, lettuce, tomatoes, a potato in a bag, two limes (not in a bag), some garlic.
There’s real food in the fridge. There’s a pan of the most delicious-looking beef brisket (soylent green? but that kind of question might tip her off). Then….a lone Kraft single- prompting a triumphant cry -but she insists it’s her son’s. She then cleverly moves on to distractions of smoked salmon, and uber-condiments – whole grain mustard, Tabasco mayonnaise, cashew butter and Farmers’ Market apple butter.
Then the freezer. Many mysterious bags which end up containing bread and biscuits. A few scattered boxes of frozen peas poke out, and Toaster Scramblers. Some coffee, and a big bottle of Absolut.
But no head. One last chance.
Will she take the bait: “Just hypothetically, what’s the tastiest part of the human body?”
Dupree chuckles. “I know the answer,” she smiles, “I know. But I’m not telling.”